VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Nanotechnology presents an enormous opportunity

In a “supersized” culture, where bigger is better, nanotechnology is redefining the meaning of slimming down.

Today, all of our favorite songs fit on a business card-size machine instead of on hundreds of CDs. Loud, clunky medical equipment has been

with sleek
quiet machinery that produces results in seconds. And, scientists and engineers in various industries are working with the smallest particles to build some of the most complex structures.

The term “nanotechnology” refers to materials and devices that function at a microscopic level of less than 100 nanometers-that’s less than 1/800 of the diameter of a human hair. But it’s not just about making products smaller, but also stronger, cleaner, lighter, less expensive and more precise. Given this simple definition, nanotechnology can be broadly applied across disciplines to blur the boundaries between biology, chemistry, physics and engineering.

In recent years, the field of nanotechnology has transformed from a promising concept to a burgeoning reality around the globe, and right here in Indiana, too-especially in our growing life sciences and pharmaceutical arenas.

In fact, the current and projected financial impact of nanotechnology is astounding. According to 2007’s The Nanotech Report, nanotechnology currently receives $11.8 billion in domestic funding, including almost $700 million in venture capitalist funding, and accumulates $50 billion in product sales. Additionally, the National Science Foundation estimates that the annual global market for nano-related goods and services will exceed $1 trillion by 2015.

Intersects with the life sciences

One of the most intriguing aspects of nanotechnology is its intersection with the life sciences. This application of nanotechnology has the potential to result in monumental changes to the fields of medicine and biotechnology. Current nanotech research in medical diagnosis and detection, targeted drug-delivery systems, and pharmaceutical development could one day revolutionize life sciences.

For example, nanotechnology has developed methods of medical diagnosis and detection that provide greater sensitivity than any system currently on the market. Biomarkers within the body could be quantitatively and qualitatively identified with nanoparticles, leading to easier identification of cancers, heart attacks and infections. In addition, molecular imaging of disease within the body could allow physicians to more effectively treat ailments.

Quantum dots are one example of nanotechnology screening. Also known as “nanodots,” quantum dots are produced to fluoresce at a specific wavelength when
subjected to light. When engineered to identify a specific antigen or antibody, quantum dots can function as diagnostic or imaging probes with higher yields and lower toxicities than current methods. Further, the microscopic size of quantum dots will allow an easy way to screen a blood sample for numerous different agents at the same time.

Another application of nanotechnology is the ability to design drug-delivery systems that target only the disease-affected cells within the body. For example, nanoparticles could be used as a vehicle to deliver cancer drugs to targeted tumor cells, avoiding the damage to healthy surrounding cells that is common with conventional cancer therapies. Additionally, nanoparticles containing DNA have been engineered to act as a vector within the body, delivering the DNA to a specific location as part of gene therapy.

Furthermore, an important clinical development of nanotechnology could be in pharmaceutical development. For example, working with drugs on a nanolevel could help solve current challenges in drug solubility, chemical stability and bioavailability.

The potential for commercialization in this maturing technology is vast. For instance, a 2007 report projected that the market for nanotechnology-enabled drug delivery will increase from its current estimate of $3.4 billion to $26 billion by 2012. By 2015, the market has the potential to reach $220 billion.

Protecting nano patents

The rise of nanotechnology has also increased the number of parties seeking patent protection of inventions, and obtaining patents is critical to the progression of nanotechnology.

A company desiring to protect its nanotechnology innovations must consider the benefits that patent protection affords. For example, patents can be used to generate royalties for nanotechnology under a licensing agreement. In addition, a patent portfolio can be used as leverage during a merger negotiation. Like biotechnology, a particularly large investment is required to develop nanotechnology, so having patent protection is essential.

Obtaining adequate patent protection for innovations can be challenging for companies, however. Much has been made of the “land grab” of nanotechnology patents, where applicants rush to patentlarge areas of the technology.

As a result, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted broad and overlapping patent protection to multiple parties, creating a “patent thicket” that makes it difficult for companies to actually commercialize new technologies without infringing on another’s patent. The potential for conflicting nanotechnology patents heightens the importance of careful business planning and thorough patenting considerations to protect a company’s investment into its products and services.

Addison is a partner in the Indianapolis office of Barnes & Thornburg LLP, practicing in the Intellectual Property Department. Views expressed here are the writer’s.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.